Sit down dear reader, pour yourself a very strong alcoholic beverage, pop that blood pressure medication and allow me to tell you a tale of civic woe that has become all too familiar in our fair burg.
As you may know, your favorite newspaper/birdcage liner has been trying for eight months to obtain the names of people who attended ski trips and other junkets under the auspices of the Police Explorers — a group designed to teach underprivileged kids about police work and snow skiing. The reason for seeking these records is because several people inside the Mobile Police Department have suggested that in addition to those legitimately associated with the Explorers, a number of officers, city employees, spouses and kids tagged a free ride on these federally funded trips.
Newspapers are supposed to ask about such things, so we did. Unfortunately, MPD Chief Micheal Williams and Mayor Sam Jones have treated the state’s open records law like toilet paper since then as they’ve tried mightily to prevent us from seeing who attended. I know you’re probably thinking, “Well if they won’t give up the records they must have something to hide.” Move to the head of the class Sherlock.
After a lot of initial cajoling, MPD gave up some financial records, most of which were incomplete and none of which contained a full accounting of who went on the trips. Williams said he wouldn’t reveal the names of juveniles who attended, even though it was clearly public record, so our intrepid attorney filed suit against MPD. Only then did we start to get some names. And darned if it didn’t look like critics of the trips might have had a point.
By then the case was turned over to the attorneys in City Hall who have bent their big ol’ brains towards thwarting efforts to find out simple things like the names of the 42 people who flew to Denver in 2008 at a cost of $17,000. We’ve had to squeeze any records we have out of them like blood from turnips with law degrees.
When this finally got to the courtroom in May, Williams sent over a sworn affidavit saying he’d done a search and given us all the records MPD had related to the Explorers trips. Apparently all the travel rosters, parental permission slips, payments for airline tickets and motel rooms, meals, bus trips etc. for some of these trips just disappeared.
Frankly I thought the plot line of “Sharknado” had more credibility than Williams’ affidavit, but Circuit Court Judge Rick Stout seemed willing to accept the police chief’s word that his department either lost or threw away everything. Instead of telling Williams to make some phone calls to reassemble the records he lost, the judge told our attorney to subpoena them. OK. It’s more of a pain in the butt that way and costs more, but the judge had spoken. But that’s when the BS-nado really cranked up.
The city attorneys — who work at the behest of Mayor Sam Jones, and strongly reflect his record of openness and honesty — filed an objection to Lagniappe subpoenaing these records. They claimed since the travel agency isn’t a public entity its records aren’t public and therefore we should not be allowed to see them! They REALLY don’t want us — and thus you gentle reader — to know who went on these trips.
But hey, the judge was the one who told us to subpoena the records, so it seemed perfectly logical he’d kick that objection out the door. When we went back to court last week, though, it was a whole new day. Judge Stout said he’d never been presented with this issue before and needed time to think about it. So he squashed or quashed our subpoenas for a couple more weeks until he could study matters.
But there’s more folks. Isn’t there always? Coincidentally, I received several new records the day before we headed to court. New records? But how could that be when Chief Williams had said there were no other records? Holy sworn affidavit Batman!
We tried to bring the matter up in court, but Judge Stout shut that down quickly. The court wasn’t interested in these mysterious new records — at least not yet. After all, the Chief swore there were no more. So that’s where it stands.
What we know right now is that based upon the lists provided by MPD, a number of police and city employees went on at least one ski trip with their kids. What we don’t know yet is how many trips these people and their kids have attended or MPD’s take on why this was OK. What also seems evident is there are more records and the mayor and police chief don’t want us to have them.
The city’s attorney even had the audacity to tell me after court that Williams was being cooperative until I “pushed too far.” Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I don’t think anywhere in the state’s open records law is there an exemption for when the Chief gets pissed. The law is the law and whether or not the Chief’s colon is in a twist isn’t part of it.
City lawyers and mouthpieces spent the rest of the day after the last hearing trying to sell other media on the notion these new records were things Lagniappe never asked for and that’s why they weren’t provided. While that type of sophistry is something to be expected from City Hall and MPD, our very FIRST request last November specifically asks for ALL Explorer records for the previous three years. Sorry gang, that flying shark won’t hunt.
Our reporter even asked Mayor Jones last week why he has his attorneys blocking our subpoenas and — surprise! — he claimed he didn’t know anything about it. Slippery Sam’s not too busy to play dumb. He could easily put an end to all of this by telling Williams to call the travel agency and his attorneys to stop obfuscating, but maybe he’s worried what the records would show.
So if Judge Stout comes back in two weeks and decides we can’t subpoena the records it means the city can destroy, lose or withhold public records, send a letter to court saying “the dog ate my homework” and the judge can just shrug his shoulders and say, “Well I guess that’s that. Time for lunch!”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your local government at work.